This essay investigates the common charge that contemporary US fiction and the literature of 9/11 have failed to meaningfully engage with the world. While it is true that American fiction has become increasingly insular and that the New York City-based publishing industry systematically fails to translate non-English works into English, I argue that critiques of the whole literary field, based on the close reading of individual texts, overlook the systemic and institutional grounds of American unworldliness. David Foster Wallace’s 2004 novella, “The Suffering Channel,” offers critics of American literary parochialism a text that is difficult to assimilate neatly into current interpretive practices. “The Suffering Channel” depicts a cast of characters who work for Style magazine in the months immediately preceding the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Focused on these characters’ attempts to write a human-interest story about a man who is able to defecate perfectly formed sculptures made of shit, “The Suffering Channel” satirizes the insularity and narcissism that plagues Americans, even those who, like the interns who work at Style, imagine themselves to be cosmopolitans. Wallace also insists on the necessity of exploring that insular perspective in its own terms. Wallace’s novella invites its reader to simultaneously identify and disidentify with an unworldly American perspective and, in doing so, to create a negative map of the world. This is both a political and literary project for Wallace. At the same time that he critiques the postmodern parochialism of the US culture industries, he uses his proleptic style to force his readers into experiencing dread when encountering American consumer culture. Ultimately, Wallace takes himself to be an example of the sort of limited perspective he seeks to critique, suggesting that the solution to American unworldliness requires not individual changes in consciousness or literary habit but a wholesale transformation of US educational and cultural institutions.
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Lee Konstantinou; The World of David Foster Wallace. boundary 2 1 August 2013; 40 (3): 59–86. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-2367040
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